Educating the troops
Strengthening the Israeli and Jewish identity of its soldiers should continue to be a central goal of the IDF.
Haredi combat soldiers Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Young men and women with strong Israeli and Jewish identities make better IDF
soldiers. This self-evident axiom has been backed up by a recently
published Education Corps survey.
The survey – conducted between December
2008 and March 2009 and published in the latest edition of the IDF journal
Ma’arachot – found that soldiers who excelled during their military stint tend
to attach high levels of importance to their Israeli and Jewish
A whopping 94 percent of officers from the cadet level up to
the rank of lieutenant-colonel said their Israeli identity was “important” or
Only a slightly lower proportion – 82% – viewed their
Jewish identity as “important” or “very important.”
And what the officers
overwhelmingly meant when they referred to “Jewish identity” was “the Jewish
religion and its customs,” and not the fuzzier definition of Jewish identity as
“culture” or “nationality.”
Undoubtedly, most of the men and women who
excel in the IDF arrive with strong Israeli and Jewish identities. Upbringing,
schooling, youth groups and the growth of pre-military academies for both
religious and secular men and women all help to build strong Israeli and Jewish
But the Education Corps and the Chaplaincy Corps also have
central roles to play in strengthening soldiers’ Jewish and Israeli identities
during the years they spend in the military.
Unfortunately, in recent
years there has been rising criticism – particularly from the extreme Left – of
attempts within the IDF to strengthen Israeli and Jewish identity. The
Chaplaincy Corps has been singled out for censure for overstepping its bounds by
using the Bible and other religious texts to support militancy. And even the
Education Corps has come under fire for allowing “right-wing” organizations to
participate in educational programs offered to soldiers.
Indeed, the IDF
must strive to be sensitive to the fact that it is made up of men and women from
diverse backgrounds, including non-Jews from the Druse, Beduin, Christian and
Circassian communities as well as thousands of Israelis who are not Jewish
according to Halacha but who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return
because they were related to Jews.
But it is absurd to expect the IDF –
the military arm of a state that declares itself to be “Jewish and democratic” –
to be devoid of positive values. How can a soldier be expected to fight, and if
necessary give his or her life, to protect the Jewish state if he or she does
not fully appreciate the ties – religious, historical, cultural – that connect
the Jewish people to one another and to this particular sliver of contested land
that is called Israel? And how can we expect non-Jewish minorities serving in
the IDF to make similar sacrifices unless they are convinced of the Jewish
people’s conviction and sense of purpose? Messages need not be simplistically
black and white. Soldiers are – and should be – taken to Tel Hai to discuss the
“myth” of Joseph Trumpeldor’s dying words (“Never mind, it is good to die for
our country”) and whether or not soldiers can fully identify with Trumpeldor’s
statement (if he really said it).
Trips to Jerusalem should – and do –
emphasize for soldiers the Jewish people’s ties to the city and help them to
understand attempts by contemporary Jewish organizations to strengthen the
Jewish presence there while at the same time appreciating that Jerusalem is
important to Muslims and Christians.
And soldiers should also grapple
with the different – and even contradictory – visions of a Jewish state
represented by Jerusalem on the one hand and Tel Aviv on the
Strengthening the Israeli and Jewish identity of its soldiers
should continue to be a central goal of the IDF. Battles are won not solely due
to superior fire power. They are won in minds and hearts.